In response to my post ‘Punching Nazis in the Face and Anti-Antifa Critiques‘ a friend of mine offered some critical responses on Facebook; these responses have offered me an opportunity to try to express my original claims more clearly. My responses are below. (Excerpts from my original post are indented in plain text; my friend’s responses are italicized.)
Violence takes many forms; current critiques of Antifa fetishize physical violence, the actual meeting of flesh vs. flesh; they fail to address the violence present in a relentless pattern of intimidation and abuse and overt exertions of power. These critiques are blind in a crucial dimension; they take their eyes off the content and the history of Nazi/white supremacist speech and action; they do not examine their impact of those that bear the brunt of these. The legal definition of ‘assault’ is more catholic: it admits of more forms of violence, and allows for a greater range of actions in response.
I use “violence” in the common, colloquial sense. I think there are few easier ways to create division than to create new meanings for old words known only to a select group. So when I criticize violence on the left or the right, I am referring to physical violence that would be classified as criminal in a fair court of law. I do not consider myself blind to the content or history of Nazi/white supremacist speech and action; I have examined their impact on those who bear the brunt of them.
I’m not creating ‘new meanings’ but let me grant your point, and rephrase mine; I’m not going to wait for ‘violence in the common colloquial sense’ to be done to me; I will act when I feel ‘assaulted,’ when I feel my family and I are ‘threatened’; the judgement of these threat levels can vary depending on one’s lived experiences, on what one experiences as ‘assault.’ Much more than ‘violence in the common colloquial sense’ can cause ‘trauma’ and ‘injury’; I will not allow that done to my family. I tried, in my original post, to provide a rough specification of the conditions under which violence against ‘Nazis’ might be justified; they were phrased as a kind of ‘self-defense.’ They describe me protecting my family; they attempt to describe a situation in which I’m protecting a vulnerable person I love from a hateful person getting into their personal space; I’m not simply standing up for my masculinity. I’m acting as a father, trying to protect my family.
Let us be clear about one thing: no one is suggesting that preemptive violence be launched against Nazis when it is unprovoked; no one is recommending that Antifa go into homes, drag out Nazis by the hair, and pummel them in the streets. But if Nazis come marching through the streets, if they attempt to hold a rally, they should be confronted; if they adopt threatening postures and commit acts like the ones mentioned in my original post, they should be punched in the face. To repeat: when Nazis show up, they should be confronted; when they act aggressive, as they most certainly will, they should be confronted; if this confrontation becomes violent–and I will bet good money the Nazis will create the conditions for this–so be it.
[Consider too, that Antifa in Charlottesville did much more than engage in simple street battles with the Nazis, they actively defended many. As another friend of mine pointed out on Facebook:
The physical skirmishes that break out between the neo-Nazis and Antifa are getting so much attention that the fact that Antifa are placing their bodies between the neo-Nazis and those they are trying to attack who are not Antifa seems to be getting lost as part of the narrative, and it may well be a larger story of the overall narrative than the physical violence. Clergy who were in Charlottesville have said that Antifa people literally saved their lives, and that isn’t hyperbole. Not only did Antifa form a barrier around the clergy who had linked arms to face down the neo-Nazis, they also helped people to flee, by being willing to take the beatings themselves. There were many accounts of that, including that of the young black man who was badly beaten just yards from the Charlottesville police department headquarters who was rescued not by police but by Antifa members. They’d have killed him were it not for those who were willing to intervene – they were beating him in the face and head. Maybe if the police there had actually done their jobs that day, it wouldn’t have been necessary for Antifa to step in.]
Let us move on.
For many folks, the sight of Nazis marching in the streets, calling them sub-human, demanding they leave their homes and ‘go back’ to where ‘they came from,’ is already assault. Nazis don’t offer political critique: they reduce my humanity. (Read the Daily Stormer if you doubt this.) If they attempt to do that to my daughter, I will not wait for them to start swinging. I’ll start swinging first; there is, no, I repeat, no, talking with Nazis. I will not allow my daughter to be ‘assaulted’ by Nazis; more to the point, I will not rely on the goodwill of the police or the state to protect me. They have already made clear they will not defend my family or me. The daily news assures me of their non-cooperation in this matter. Indeed, I expect that they will stand by and let violence be done to me.
It is not assault in any legal or colloquial sense of the term. Assault is physical or else a threat of imminent physical harm. What the Daily Stormer publishes is not assault by this definition. Such speech and behavior is abusive, hateful, xenophobic, racist, and other things, but I still do not see the need to redefine words. It only appears to cause confusion.
I like the definitive nature of this response but this is just posturing, by taking refuge in the supposedly determinate meaning of legal terms, which are actually anything but. A grown white man is screaming racial epithets in a five-year old girl’s face, and I punch him; I’ll take my chances with a jury and their interpretation of the legal doctrines of ‘assault’ and ‘fighting words.’ If not, I’ll take my chances with my conscience. As for my remark about the Daily Stormer, I’m not suggesting their printed speech is assault but that same speech is very different if expressed in a physical space, with bodies close by–it approaches the legal ‘fighting words’ standard. In my original post, I had suggested that the physical presence of armed men, screaming epithets, marching through my neighborhood, would be a form of assault; the legal ‘fighting words’ doctrine would seem to become operative; I would feel threatened, to me, harm would seem imminent. The word ‘imminent’ does a lot of work here in my friend’s responses I would suggest he not take so much recourse in the idea that ‘imminent’ is so clearly defined and instead face up to the fact that the judgment of ‘imminent’ can vary, depending on the perceived threat and the person being threatened. Creating confusion is precisely what I intend to do, by showing that these words which the ‘non-violent’ would lean on, do not have as definitive meaning as they might think, and that events can cause us to redefine them. There is a legally and morally significant difference between printing the words ‘Fuck kike bitches’ in the Daily Stormer and yelling those words in the face of a Jewish woman on a subway. A Jewish person might avoid reading the first; she won’t avoid the second.
More generally, these words paint you as a solitary man standing against an army of hate. I do side with you in that regard, but I fail to understand why proactive extrajudicial violence is a wise course of action at this juncture. Do you expect to win? If you were to go down this path, I would at the least advise you to obtain better weapons than your fists. Your opponents already possess them. If you believe you are in danger of suffering imminent violence (in the common, colloquial sense), I would only hope you have a more detailed plan of engagement than the one you sketch out here.
I agree that it is ‘proactive’; I’m happy to have my actions defined by that term. But I’d also like my friend to define ‘win.’ What would ‘winning’ mean here? Not getting arrested, not getting punched myself? No, then I lose. But I might ‘win’ in other ways; as William James said in ‘The Will to Believe,’ if I act on the belief that I attack the highwayman on the train, and others join me, we will have succeeded together:
[From Will to Believe: A social organism of any sort whatever, large or small, is what it is because each member proceeds to his own duty with a trust that the other members will simultaneously do theirs. Wherever a desired result is achieved by the co-operation of many independent persons, its existence as a fact is a pure consequence of the precursive faith in one another of those immediately concerned. A government, an army, a commercial system, a ship, a college, an athletic team, all exist on this condition, without which not only is nothing achieved, but nothing is even attempted. A whole train of passengers (individually brave enough) will be looted by a few highwaymen, simply because the latter can count on one another, while each passenger fears that if he makes a movement of resistance, he will be shot before any one else backs him up. If we believed that the whole car-full would rise at once with us, we should each severally rise, and train-robbing would never even be attempted. There are, then, cases where a fact cannot come at all unless a preliminary faith exists in its coming.]
Perhaps the sight of a brown man protecting his daughter from Nazis has a political valence that is not not understood; perhaps political imagination is limited. As I noted in my original post, the critical responses to the ‘aggressive’ or ‘proactive’ actions of the Antifa suffer from a failure of imagination. Once the punch is thrown, there is no attempt to imagine any other conceivable progression of events and consider that other political actors might conceive of courses of actions that they think they can influence through their own agency; at this moment, we become slaves of history, driven on by some inexorable logic.
Every single call to denounce the Antifa and their tactics abdicates political agency: if the Antifa do X, then our political opponents will do Y, and we can do nothing about it. There the discussion stops; there is no talk of whether there are any substantive countermoves to Y. The propaganda countermeasures that say that violence on ‘both sides’ will be condemned cannot be combated; the state’s crackdown–now justified because of Antifa’s violence–cannot be resisted. Our only option is acquiescence in the face of precisely those some propaganda countermeasures and the same state crackdown that are already visible today. Here, the moderate white’s imagination breaks down. He cannot imagine a political move in response; all is lost. The ‘other’ will act, and ‘we’ will simply be subject to their actions. We, through our actions and speech, can do nothing in response. This is not political critique; this is surrender.
This seems to me to be a strawman, in that it could be said that any criticism of *any* political tactic can be met with this counterargument. The question is which tactics and strategies are most beneficial, given that no one can employ all of them simultaneously. Each of us models the potential outcomes to various courses of action and ranks them accordingly. To say that something is a bad idea is not a surrender unless one has no rebuttal.
I’m sorry to say this but this response is a strawman too. If we are talking about a political chessgame, it is not enough to say to your opponent, you’ll do X and your opponent will do Y, and then CHECKMATE, which as far as I can tell is the rhetorical package that this particular response comes in. The mere provision of Y as a potential conversation-closer gives the game away; it is assumed here that Y has foreclosed many options, and is a game-ender; but it is not, it is merely the next move, which will have to be met with a combination of theory and action, like any other political move. There is far too many material forces at play, too much contingency to suggest that the political move Y will be unanswerable in the way this criticism works. (As below, I’m having German history shoved in my face again and again as if what happened in Germany is destined to happen here and there is no other way to imagine what could have been done then.)
But since a discussion of tactics has been kicked off, let’s talk tactics. Let me reiterate my thought experiment, this time, slightly modified. My original statement was indeed imprecise, and I regret it.
Here is a thought experiment concerning 1930s Germany: What would have happened if German Antifa had indeed come out swinging against the Nazis? What if every time the Nazis had held a rally, they had been greeted, not just with overwhelming numbers, but with a swift punch to the face every time one of them opened their mouths to pronounce their murderous ideology? What if that ‘violence’ had indeed overwhelmed the Nazis in Germany? Perhaps the problem with the violence directed against the Nazis in 1930s Germany was that there simply was not enough of it. Twelve years later, German cities had to be reduced to ashes.
I believe that “German Antifa” would have been declared to be a dangerous agent of Communism, and the collective forces of the police, SS, and brownshirts would have been deployed to obliterate them utterly (as indeed, they eventually were to such enemies of state). The 37% Nazi vote in 1932 allowed Hitler to seize power once chancellor and obliterate Weimar. Perhaps a greater amount of violence would have made it unnecessary for the Reichstag fire to be staged by the Nazis in order to crack down on Communists, but I do not see that as a point in favor of greater violence. And to be honest, I find the suggestion that millions would not have died had more left-wing Germans been violent in the 1930s to be absurd. All my reading suggests that the Nazis had well-secured the powers of state after 1933, not to be dislodged by anything short of a coup or war.
If the forces of the police, SS, and brownshirts were indeed deployed against the left, then what could Germans have done to prevent there from being such a union? If the answer is that Germans themselves had gone over to Nazism and there was no popular support for resisting the Nazis, the left was divided, then yes, the strategy of resisting the Nazis in the street would fail, as indeed it did. But what if the Nazis had been attacked by more left-wing Germans, that they had been pushed off the streets, not allowed to hold rallies? What if the left in Germany then had indeed not been divided? Would violence have been a bad tactic then? No, it would have been a successful tactic then. Violence worked in the end against the Nazis; enough of it, and it did. Again, the problem in 1930 Germany seems to have been that there was not enough violence, not enough pushback, not enough unity in purpose (as indeed the case seems to be in the US.)
I will concede one point: in a country like the US, with the left as deeply divided as it is, with large factions of so-called progressives and liberals only displaying superficial commitment to their supposed political ideals, fascism might succeed in the way that my friend is worried about. The hope, of course, is that the left will unite around the idea that to concede the streets and the airwaves and political discourse to Nazis is a bad idea, that Nazis should not be made into free speech martyrs, and so on. One can hope.